An Open Secret

The third post in the series “Tools of the Trade.”

painters who use photographs
Will Barnet, Portrait of Djordje Milićević, 1967. Collection of the Art Students League of New York.

I have a confession to make. It’s a confession that most realists are reluctant to make because it reveals something that makes us feel uncomfortable. It makes us feel like we are cheating. Here it goes.

I use a camera.

Not all of the time of course. I work from life almost daily (I’m being defensive), but I rely on the camera for a lot of my work. When I do cityscapes and subway images, as well as some portraits, I use photographic reference. I will always work from life if it is an option, but it is often the case that it is only possible to capture the moment that I’m after with the aid of photography. My work is based on the life I see. I don’t always go about the city with my easel, but I do try to carry a camera with me for those serendipitous moments when I encounter something I want to capture. If I come across a homeless person on the street who catches my eye and moves me, a camera gives me the visual information I need to make that moment into a picture. If I’m out with my family and I come across a building that I’d like to paint in the light I have at that moment, the camera will allow me to do it. When it comes to studio work, it is always cheaper and more practical to use a photograph rather than pay a model to pose for many hours. There is also space, schedule, and light issues when working from life that make it less convenient than using photographic reference. Sharing model expenses offers some opportunities, but also presents the limitations of either duplicating, and or compromising with, the creative vision of other artists.

There is a cost to using photography as reference. The experience of working from life is far more fulfilling and rich. Whether you are looking at a photograph or a model, your shapes aren’t likely to be different, your colors and values may be the same, but something is different when you are looking at a model. Of course, your appreciation of the three-dimensional quality of your subject is far better, but it goes beyond form. Whether you use a photograph or a model, you make thousands of observations of your subject, some very general and others infinitesimal, but the photograph doesn’t change. A photograph is a frozen moment in time, while a model lives and breathes, shifts position, changes mood. The light shifts, the drapery shifts, and hair moves. Some will find that an annoyance, but I find it to be an opportunity. Many of those changes provide interesting choices and revelations. It’s like forming an impression of someone from one brief encounter, as opposed to having many interactions, though spaced very closely together. It’s just a richer deeper experience to work from life. My brush is more lively and spontaneous working from a model as well. The time restrictions make me a more decisive artist. I could go on. Working from life is simply better. Or is it?

The experience of working from the model is a slow revelation; the camera is an image-hunting tool with a quick acquisition.

Perhaps it’s just different. Working from photography allows us to capture a moment in time without a laborious, expensive, and often unconvincing reconstruction in the studio. The camera is a tool well-suited for portraying fleeting moments. It’s very direct. The experience of working from the model is a slow revelation; the camera is an image-hunting tool with a quick acquisition. Then the artist can ponder what he has acquired. The key is not to get too attached to the verity of the photo. It isn’t reality; it’s a two-dimensional translation with limitations. The camera can’t see the values or the color that the human eye can see, and you have to watch for lens distortion. You need to use your experience working from life to improve the photo. I often adjust the images I take, changing composition, manipulating them in Photoshop, even changing the backgrounds and combing them with other images. I have time to ponder what I want to do without the pressure of the live model. I can take a hundred photos and use none of them at no expense. That is the advantage of the digital revolution. When I used film it could take many rolls of film to get a single worthwhile image. Today, we don’t pay for film or developing and we can see our results instantly. Photography is a very powerful tool, and I can’t see why we shouldn’t use it, or be ashamed that we do. And it’s not an either-or proposition; we can use both. I can start from life and finish from a photograph, or vice versa.

So why do we hate to admit that we use cameras? Is it cheating? I don’t think so. It is even liberating for some artists to not be anchored to the live model. I prefer the model, but there is something artificial about the “pose.” The studio has its own limitations. I don’t want anything to limit my ability to portray my direct experience of the world I encounter. I like the rawness of the photograph. So why not just be a photographer? I love to paint. I love the painted image. I don’t want my paintings to look like photographs. I want the impasto and the paint-strokes. The photograph isn’t my subject; it’s a means to an end, a tool. I use the camera as a tool, and it is very empowering.

Where the line is between utility, compromise, and the loss of integrity in using photography is completely subjective.

Some of the discomfort artists have with photography may have to do with the idea that using the camera is a slippery slope. You start off balancing the photograph with working from life. It becomes easy, and then you use the camera more and more often. Next thing you know you’re using the camera for a self-portrait, for still-life, when you really could work from life. Then, gasp, you start projecting! You’re not even drawing your own image. You’re filling in between the lines! It’s all over.

Well, if the art is in the idea, how you do it may not matter. It does matter to me. I did project images when I illustrated book covers. Time is money in the illustration world, and deadlines are tight. I have no problem with projection in the context of the deadline. Even if you project your image, if you can’t paint you are going to mess up the painting anyway. It’s a shortcut for those who know what they’re doing. However, I never project my images for my own work. It just removes my hand from the drawing too much. My imperfect drawing is me, the all-too-flawed human me. When the drawing is just too perfect, it seems less human, too mechanical. The spontaneity is gone. It’s too far removed from life. The camera may be a compromise, but projection is a betrayal of the artist-subject relationship. The camera holds the pose for me indefinitely while I do the observing, but a projection is doing the drawing for me. It’s one barrier too many between the subject and me. An LCD projector is also a tool, but one I choose not to use. Where the line is between utility, compromise, and the loss of integrity in using photography is completely subjective. Vermeer’s camera obscura didn’t create his light, though it undoubtedly affected his perception of edges. It was a tool that influenced his product. You could say the same about a brush.

Painting has been reacting to the evolution of photography since the 1840s. For some it has released them from the burden of verisimilitude; others have embraced it as a tool in capturing the naturalistic image. A tool so useful that it may have made things too easy. The ability to translate the 3D to the 2D is a cognitively complex skill that the camera performs for us. Perhaps, the admission that it is used feels tantamount to revealing that you can’t do it the hard way, from life. Some artists value the ability to work from life more than others. I value it highly, but it’s not the only way to work. Photography is the best addition to our toolbox since tubed oil paint. The camera has expanded the possibilities. And like any tool, it can be used or misused.

James Harrington is a teacher and painter living in Queens, NY.


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